The folklore of creativity – Taylor Swift’s work ethic in a pandemic

I’ve been thinking a lot this year about Taylor Swift. Now, this is a fairly new development.

For some of her fans, her evolution from country sweetheart to sequinned pop icon to her look what you made me do rebellion has tracked the course of their own lives too.

They’ve seen themselves and their heartbreaks and anxieties in her songwriting as well as the ebbs and flows of her persona.

Despite fitting the prime relating-to-Taylor generation (I was born in ’93), I never really felt a connection with her music. At least, not until she released Folklore in the midst of Covid-19.

I’ve probably listened to that album hundreds of times since she released it in July 2020.

Out of nowhere, she created an album that was everything I wanted to hear. While I was finishing up my book about life in the Swiss Alps, Folkore felt like a musical analogue to what I was trying to create. And less than six months later, she published a sister-ish album, Evermore.

It got me thinking about creativity and work ethic. In particular: how do you nurture your creative spirit when the world around you is swirling in collective stress, uncertainty, change, and even trauma? Is there something we can learn from Taylor?

Creativity & carving out your own retreat from the world

One of the most beautiful parts of creativity is imagining different realities and crafting a world you want to escape into. During Covid-19, we’re even more in need of internal retreats to recharge our batteries: whether they’re via good books, music that stirs something inside us, or the immersion of a good Netflix series.

Folklore’s retreat into a cabin in the woods is firmly aligned with my standard dream escape, as are most of my other favourite books (e.g. Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver) and music (see my Mountain Song playlist).

Taylor’s creativity over the last year has got me thinking about a philosophy I’ve always tried to live by, sometimes more successfully than others – to create the things I want to exist in the world.

What’s the place you want to retreat into? How can you create that, first in your imagination and then in this world?

Productivity vs. burnout

Around the start of the pandemic, people started talking about two different responses to life in quarantine: one, being super productive and starting blogs about baking sourdough or creating a cupcake business. And two, freezing in place and feeling barely capable of getting out of your pyjamas.

I’ve oscillated between the two.

For much of 2020, I loved the space to create and dream up things, even if there was the crap situation of being away from Iain for a year and living with my parents.

But since the turn of 2021, I hit pause on most areas of my life. I just couldn’t keep up my creativity and work ethic while the key areas of my life felt so out of balance. I felt completely burned out.

Whether we’re in a pandemic or not, life consists of seasons. There are seasons for growth, exploration, and creation (when you might put out two albums, like Taylor) – and there are seasons for rest, hibernation, and contemplation.

Are you in a season for growth, exploration, and creation – or rest, hibernation, and contemplation?

When your body needs to be in one season, such as when you’re experiencing burnout, it’s hard to force it into another way of being. Sometimes you just have to roll with it for a bit. Katherine May’s book Wintering is a wonderful exploration of this.

Work ethic when the world is in turmoil

You can say that Taylor Swift has a few advantages above many other people. That she can stay creative because she’s white, privileged, and has cash in the bank.

There’s some truth to that. Creativity would be categorised with self-actualisation on Maslow’s hierarchy and firmly above security. It’s not something everyone can nurture in their lives because they’re got bigger things to deal with. But I can’t imagine I’d feel particularly creatively energetic when the media was looking for opportunities to rip me apart either.

I don’t agree with a “grass is always greener” view of creative work, at least in my own life. After periods when I thought I needed more time to be creative, after I found that time I often didn’t feel creative. There’s rarely an ideal moment to write the book you’ve always dreamed of or record the album you know you have in you.

It’s okay if your default reaction to a global pandemic isn’t to knuckle down and create your best work. Most of us probably aren’t releasing two albums in a year.

The coronavirus, whether you lose your job, the health of those around you – these are all things you probably can’t control. You might also not be able to change your home or who you’re living with.

If you’re in the depths of a bad burnout and struggling to keep up with your daily requirements, start with the basics before thinking of anything else.

But what about the things you can control, that can help bring you more balance and creativity?

I’ve long known that creative flow and wellbeing are tangled together for me. When I’m feeling good, I’m writing and creating things. When I’m hitting a wall in one or more areas of my life – health, relationships, work – and feeling out of balance, often my creativity is the first thing to go.

Before thinking about creative output, think about the key pillars of your life and where you can nurture more balance.

Optimise your health, living environment, relationships, community, and financial situation so you can pave the way to a clearer mind that can afford to be imaginative (rather than helping you run from the bear on your tail). Focus on what lifts your spirit and gives you life and energy.

Adjust your habits to spend less time on your devices and more time with scope to sit and write, paint, bake, grow plants, or create if you choose to.

What do you need in place first before your body, mind, and spirit can create? How can you build your strongest framework for creative work?

And finally – what would you create if everything was aligned? What would be your equivalent to Taylor Swift’s two album releases during Covid?

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